We had traveled to the heart of American farming country to stay with an old friend in Kentucky. It was winter and it felt like it might never end. We were made welcome in the white clapboard farmhouse that was full of books. We ate good simple food and talked about our families and our farms. But as hard as we tried to be cheerful, it felt as if we had stumbled into someone else’s grief. There was a sense of impending doom about the coming election results. This had once been a thriving landscape of small-and medium-sized farms. Now, it felt like a landscape littered with ghosts and relics.
Our friend drove us around the county in his white pickup truck, with his sheepdog in the back and his red toolbox and wrenches in the footwell. He told us about his people, past and present, and introduced us to farmers who were holding on. They all told us the same thing: America had chosen industrial farming and abandoned its small family farms, and this was the result—a landscape and a community that were falling apart. They showed us fields of oilseed rape that were full of weeds because they were now resistant to the pesticides that had been overused. They spoke of mountains ripped open for minerals, and rivers polluted, and farming people leaving the land or holding on in hidden poverty. And the worse it all got, the more people seemed to gravitate to charlatans with their grand promises and ready-made scapegoats to focus all their anger on. I felt I had landed in a future that didn’t work, and the people I met sensed my unease. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” they told me.
The vast black fields of Iowa go on forever. The soil, rich and deep, is flecked with the stubs of cornstalks. It lies exposed to the wind and rain for half the year. And grows like hell the other half. I heard the young woman say that she loved this landscape, that in summer you could “hear the corn growing.” But to my old-world eyes, this wintry desert had little romance or history in it.
It is a landscape of big skies—and below, all is dark, flat, and bleak. It offers little but utility. The farms look like something out of that Grant Wood painting—American Gothic. And the iconic homesteader and his wife must have left for the city or are in the house watching TV, because there aren’t many people in these landscapes. Everything old was rotting. Barns leaned away from the wind, roofs half torn off. Corn towers and grain elevators broke the flat black horizon and shone silver in the sunlight. Giant pyramids of orange corn stood in the rain, under the arms of grain elevators. The plowed fields butted up to the picket fences of the crumbling farmsteads and stretched from horizon to horizon. It was an expanse of corn, soybeans, and pig sheds. This was the agricultural landscape that Earl Butz demanded.
I was traveling with an agronomist whose passion was soil, and how to change farming to protect it. The troubles of this landscape hurt her, because this was her home and the farmers here were her people. Judging these places harshly is easy if the farmers aren’t your family and you don’t see the bags under their eyes and the stress on their shoulders at family parties. She told me this landscape was created in the supermarkets of America—by the cult of cheap food. The people in those shops seemed not to know, or care much, about how unsustainable their food production is. The share of the average American citizen’s income spent on food has declined from about 22 percent in 1950 to about 6.4 percent today. But it is worse than that, because the proportion of every dollar spent on food that goes to the farmer has declined massively to around 15 cents and is still declining. The money that people think they are spending on food from farms almost all goes to those who process the food, and to the wholesalers and retailers. The winners are a handful of vast corporations who have politicians and lawmakers of all political parties in their pockets.
The agronomist told me that Iowa is blowing away. For half the year, the wind across the tilled fields slowly steals the topsoil, carrying it to someplace else, one tiny particle at a time. It doesn’t seem much on any given day, but it is relentless and in places several feet of topsoil have been lost over the past century: an endless and unsustainable waste of the soil that feeds America. The reality can be seen on the dirty brown snowdrifts, the stolen wealth of this land caught, for an icy moment, before being lost.
If this was the future, it was curiously shabby and ugly. It didn’t appear to be very nice for people to live in. Many of these farms, even the prosperous-looking places, were deep in debt. The landscape was an ecological disaster, as sterile as can be, and was responsible for a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where the eroded soil and field chemicals all flowed once they got into the Mississippi River. A lot of the work was done by Mexican immigrants, who had been displaced from their own farms by the American corporations bullying them out of business. And what couldn’t be done by cheap immigrant workers was done by machines, which were now self-navigating, and able to do the work in the field guided by satellites. These farms could impose their will on the land as never before, and increasingly the “farmer” didn’t even need to be there to do it.
We parked by a ghostly farmstead, dwarfed by the pig confinement sheds and the silver grain silos beside them. Suddenly, out of the trees to our left, a large black muscular shadow turned with each wing beat into a bald eagle, the emblem of the United States. It wheeled overhead and my heartbeat in my chest. The agronomist told me that the eagles had returned in recent years. “Oh good,” I said. “What do they eat?” There was an embarrassed silence. “Maybe the dead pigs, outside the confinements,” my host replied. We both fell silent as the eagle flapped away across the fields.
There are no winners here. The farming businesses that rule these fields have got so big they are entirely reliant on one or two monopolistic buyers who screw them on prices and can bankrupt them at will. The money flows off the land to the banks that finance the debt on which it is all built, to the engineering companies selling the tractors and machinery, the synthetic fertilizer and pesticide corporations, the seed companies, and the insurance agents. And yet, judged solely as productive businesses, focusing on efficiency and productivity (and ignoring the fossil fuel inputs and ecological degradation), these new farmers are amazing—the best farmers that have ever lived. In the year 2000 the average American farmer produced 12 times as much per hour as his grandfather did in 1950. And this amazing efficiency means the end for most farmers. In the U.K., the number of dairy farmers has more than halved from more than 30,000 in 1995 to about 12,000 today. In turn, the number of dairy cows in Britain has halved in the past twenty years. The amazing productivity of the remaining farmers and super-cows is demonstrated in the simple fact that milk production has remained more or less stable.
James Rebanks and his daughter walk on the farm. (Photo credit: Stuart Simpson, Penguin Books)
Statistics like these have resulted in transformed lives, changed diets and household budgets, and completely different ways of life around the world. The share of British household income spent on food and drink has declined from about 35 percent of the average household budget in the 1950s to about 10 percent today (though poorer people spend a greater share of their income on food and drink, say 15 percent). The money we once spent on food has been freed up to spend on housing, leisure activities, consumer goods like cars, mobile phones, clothes, books, and computers, or on things like mortgages or rent, and on foreign holidays that few could afford a generation or two ago. The modern world has evolved out of these gains. But how people lived and shopped was at the same time creating immense pressures that originated in fields in which farmers were forced to search for every productivity gain possible. There was a direct link between the availability of cheap food and farmers having to adopt industrial techniques to work their land. And the more industrial it got, the less involved in it most of us became.